Everyone connected with Aberdeen FC knew the club had to bring home a cup or two, to prove that life was possible without Alex Ferguson. Porterfield and Smith had come close in successive Skol Cup Finals, but as yet the cupboard was bare. What particularly irked supporters was that those wonder years, when the Dons trounced Rangers at will, had gone. Souness had turned the tables. Rangers were kings, and they had the trophies to prove it.
It was as if a dynastic transfer had taken place, Fergie lording it for so long, now Souness assuming his mantle. It was no use crying for the moon, but Scottish football needed Fergie. A confrontation between Ferguson's Dons and Souness's Rangers, both at their peak, would have made the mouth water.
Notwithstanding the bullish optimism of Messrs Smith and Scott, prospects in 1989-90 did not seem bright. No new players arrived, other than Ian Cameron from St Mirren, and he did not linger. But the haemorrhaging of Aberdeen's attacking strength continued. Paul Wright joined QPR, Hewitt went to Celtic, and with the season barely underway, Dodds signed for Rangers. The exodus made one scratch one's head in puzzlement. Charlie Nicholas was the only goal-getter left, and one could not be surprised if he queried the extent of Aberdeen's ambition. Van der Ark was an unlikely foil for one of Nicholas's virtuosity, and in any case, the tall Dutchman had been used intermittently.
The consequences were all too predictable. Aberdeen's first nine league games produced just eight goals. No player netted more than two, and Charlie Nicholas, starved of supply and support, failed to score at all.
A shot-shy forward line shifted the balance of priorities. Snelders and his back four could repel most boarders; indeed, the team's defensive resilience now appeared its sole means of picking up points. Tactics reflected this new imperative. Aberdeen acquired the reputation of being dour and defensive - qualities anathema to supporters weaned on the Ferguson era.
Aberdeen tumbled from the UEFA Cup at the first hurdle, to the cynical play of Rapid Vienna, unable to keep a clean sheet at home, unable to score away for the seventh successive tie.
But this season had exhilarating surprises in store, undreamed of in those dispiriting first weeks. The one place the Dons found goals easy to come by was in the Skol Cup. Celtic and Rangers barred their way, but Cameron's fizzing shot saw off the Celts and enabled Paul Mason to make a hero of himself against Rangers.
Fortified by their first post-Ferguson trophy, the Dons picked up momentum. They had climbed to second when Willie Miller's career was effectively terminated by injury in a World Cup qualifier with Norway. It was in that same week that Alex Smith swooped for a genie and his magic lamp.
PSV Eindhoven had won the European Cup in 1988. Wearing No 11 in the final against Benfica was a left-sided striker by the name of Hans Gillhaus (the 'g' pronounced as an 'h') who had scored three goals in earlier rounds. Smith learned via his by-now extensive Dutch connections that PSV were prepared to sell, and at £650,000 Gillhaus became Aberdeen's record signing.
Gillhaus's debut was sensational. An overhead kick in the twelfth minute at Dunfermline was trumped two minutes later by a header that left Aberdeen's travelling support goggle-eyed. News spread, and the thousands that flocked to Pittodrie in midweek were enticed as much by the new boy-wonder as the hope of seeing Rangers beaten. Gillhaus did not disappoint, scoring the only goal to underline Aberdeen's title challenge.
St Mirren and Dundee were hit for five, Dunfermline for four. Gillhaus even sparked Charlie Nicholas into life. Nicholas belatedly opened his season's account, and the pairing of such beguiling talents threatened to unnerve defenders everywhere.
It could not last. One swallow does not make a summer and one superlative foreigner does not make a team. Nicholas's disillusion had eaten too deep. His contract was up in the summer and he had no intention of renewing it. Aberdeen topped the league till mid-December, but away wins were rare and Rangers stepped on the throttle. This was hardly the best of Souness's championship teams. Rangers scored a miserly 48 league goals, a figure even topped by Aberdeen, who improbably finished up highest scorers. Few gloated over this. Standards in the Scottish game were deteriorating year on year, a worrying trend which has yet to be arrested.
What sustained the second half of the season was the Dons' onward march to the final of the Scottish Cup. Two individual awards also came their way. McLeish was voted Scottish Football Writers' Player of the Year, and Jim Bett the Players' Player. Both - plus Stewart McKimmie - would be named in Scotland's World Cup 90 squad for Italy, while Hans Gillhaus would play for Holland against England and the Republic of Ireland.
Match of the Season (1)
Skol Cup Final, 22 October 1989
Aberdeen 2 (Mason 20, 102) Rangers 1 (Walters 34 pen)
ABERDEEN: Snelders, McKimmie, Robertson D, Grant (Irvine), McLeish, Miller, Nicholas, Bett, Mason, Connor, Jess (van der Ark)
RANGERS: Woods, Stevens, Munro, Gough, Wilkins, Butcher, Steven, Ferguson, McCoist, Johnston, Walters (McCall)
For the third year in a row the same teams contested the final. Rangers had been favourites on the first two occasions, but never so overwhelmingly as now. They were quoted at 15-8 on to win their twentieth successive Skol Cup-tie and keep the Cup for the fourth year running. The reasoning was clear. The pre-Gillhaus Dons hadn't the firepower to trouble Rangers, and Ian Cameron, scorer against Celtic in the semis, was missing with a head injury. 1-0 to Rangers was the punters' verdict, with McCoist at 6-1 to score it.
Rangers began in a stampede. They failed to break through and by the end the game had thrown up an unlikely match winner, reminiscent of cup-tie McKay back in 1970. In this season of sterile attacks, Paul Mason had been handed the No 9 shirt. Whether up front or foraging from midfield his goals frequently turned defeats into draws, and draws into victories. The Skol Cup Final was a case in point. After twenty minutes the ball was swung across. Chris Woods seemed rooted to his line, Mason timed his jump better than Munro, and the underdogs were in front.
Not for long. George Smith's award of a penalty when McCoist barged backwards into the stationary Miller would have threatened post-match inquests should Walters' spot-kick have won the Cup.
That it did not was due to Mason. Seven minutes into extra-time Nicholas squared and Mason fired the winner through a ruck of players. Victory was all the sweeter at the third time of asking, even though Aberdeen had performed less impressively in victory than they had twice in defeat. Jim Bett was named man of the match, but this was undoubtedly Mason's finest hour. Aberdeen had won the first Scottish trophy of the 1980s, and the last.
Match of the Season (2)
Scottish Cup Final, 12 May 1990
Celtic 0 Aberdeen 0
ABERDEEN: Snelders, McKimmie, Robertson D, Grant, McLeish, Irvine, Nicholas, Bett, Mason (Graham Watson), Connor, Gillhaus
CELTIC: Bonner, Wdowczyk, Rogan, Grant, Elliott, Whyte, Stark (Galloway), McStay, Dziekanowski, Walker (Coyne), Miller
Celtic did everyone a favour by knocking out Rangers in Round 4. With the favourites gone there was no logical reason why Aberdeen should not go all the way. A flurry of sixteen goals carried them past Partick, Morton, Hearts and those bugbears of Dundee United, when they were assisted by two own-goals by two foreigners, Paatelainen and van der Hoorn.
The fact that Aberdeen had drawn United in the semis, while Celtic had claimed Clydebank, had suggested the gods were rooting for the Celts, managed once again by Billy McNeill. Celtic were in a hole, partly caused by internal bickering, partly by Rangers' massive ascendancy. Only four points separated Celtic from next-to-bottom St Mirren. Aberdeen had journeyed to Parkhead for the final league fixture, omitted half the team earmarked for Hampden, and still won at a stroll. Accustomed to playing in Europe, Celtic had to lift the Scottish Cup or face exile for the first time in twelve seasons.
The form book favoured the Dons, who found themselves in the unaccustomed position in the post-Ferguson era of being favourites against one of the Old Firm.
The match would be remembered among other things for players present and absent. Celtic included former Dons Billy Stark and Joe Miller, but appeared never to have recovered from the pre-season shock of Mo Johnston opting for Rangers. Aberdeen would line up without Willie Miller. The old warhorse was feeling his 35 years and, more importantly, his right knee. He had hobbled through the last couple of fixtures but was too much of a gamble in a cup final. Besides, Brian Irvine was more than capable.
With van der Ark ruled out by a groin strain, the partnership of Nicholas and Gillhaus was permitted a final fling. It was Nicholas's last match, though as yet there was no confirmation that he was off back to Parkhead. Such divided loyalties would surely have kept him out of the side. Besides, Nicholas had never won a Scottish Cup-winners' medal. Aberdeen could supply it.
Despite his aberration in the Skol Cup Final, George Smith was given charge of Scotland's showpiece. He would need to be thick skinned, for the granting of another ill-judged penalty was sure to see him pilloried in north-eastern quarters.
On this occasion the players were capable of ruining the match by themselves. Passes went astray and chances were rare. At one end Paul Elliott cleared after Nicholas turned to shoot past Bonner; at the other Stark directed a couple of headers too close for comfort. Celtic substitute Mike Galloway might have been sent off for his first, dreadful foul, but otherwise the game spluttered towards its destiny. Extra-time was even worse than normal time, players fearful of making a mistake from which there could be no reprieve.
Hitherto, both teams would have returned for a replay. But the SFA, who inadvertently assisted Aberdeen in 1982 by introducing extra-time, now decreed that penalties should produce a winner on the day - as was the case with the Skol Cup. This innovation spelled gloom for the Dons, who had never yet won in such fashion. Honved, Dynamo Berlin, Celtic in the Skol Cup in 1986 and Rangers in the 1988 final had each punished the wayward penalty shooters of Aberdeen.
It took an age for managers and officials to draw up lists and spin coins. The shoot-out would be staged at the Aberdeen end. Celtic's consolation was to go first, but when Wdowczyk blazed high and wide Aberdeen needed only to keep their cool.
Kicks were converted until Aberdeen's fourth, when Brian Grant shot over the bar. Charlie Nicholas dared not, and did not, raise questions by missing, though he took his kick against a background of 'Charlie, Charlie' ringing out from the Celtic end. At 4-4 the shoot-out moved to sudden death. The entire teams, if need be, would take turns. By going last, any Don who missed would hand the Cup to Celtic.
Celtic's tenth taker was left-back Anton Rogan. He struck the ball low to Snelders' left, but the keeper read it correctly and celebrated by gesticulating wildly to the red-bedecked masses behind him.
The cup was not yet won. Willie Miller had missed in similar circumstances in Berlin. The man striding forward with the weight of destiny on his shoulders was Miller's replacement, Brian Irvine. He was the tenth man, the last outfield player left. If he missed, the two goalkeepers would have to take their turn against each other. But Irvine, fortified by strong Christian beliefs, seized the moment to fire the ball past Bonner's shoulder.
The glory days were back. Two trophies in one season may have been par for Ferguson, but it was something special for Alex Smith.
Words and research by CaddyCarhandle
Edited by StandFreeEd
*For more on Hans Gillhaus, read BobbyBiscuit's article in Dons Legends here.